The Cork Board

Tonle Sap – not to be missed


Some years ago, when on a trip to India, I languished in bed, tired and lacking in motivation, when we were scheduled to join a jungle safari in search of an Indian tiger. Mrs Monkey went on without me. Indian tigers are rare, right? Plus, the forest was dense making the rarest of tigers even harder to come across. Suffice to say, Mrs Monkey went along, and sure enough they spotted a tiger. Doh! It was the excitement of the day, even the holiday. I kicked myself and vowed I would never bunk off again.

So when I knew that we would be visiting the floating village on the Tonle Sap lake this was going to be my highlight and would not be missed. I mention the tiger story because on this occasion Mrs Monkey slept this one out and missed a treat.

Our boat was captained by an 18 year old, ably attired in jeans and flip-flops, and First Mate, who doubled as a masseuse (karate chops to the shoulders, $1, bless him – but another example of Cambodians trying to find ways of earning a living rather than begging), was about 12. That was it. Total crew of 2. I checked for life jackets.

The lake is full in early October and once passed the vegetation you could be forgiven for thinking that you were at sea. The whole waterway is fed by the monsoon rains, the Tonle Sap river and a back-flow from the Mekong, and at this time of year is teeming with life, aquatic and human.

Floating huts anchored in the greenery as we cruised down Main Street. Lake life was busy. People about their business under a bright open sky. I would have loved to know more about the people living this life and how they do it but the questions always dribble into your head afterwards, don’t they? Perhaps, for instance, do water rats and snakes disturb your sleep by creeping up the various bits and pieces that are tied alongside? I dread to think.

The environment is so alien to us Westerners I would have loved to have poured a beer and slunk into a hammock to watch water life go on. Anyway, it was a glimpse at least. I doubt that they are on Airbnb though.


5 thoughts on “Tonle Sap – not to be missed”

  1. Thanks for stirring the memories and your writing puts me right back there on the boat, observing those people going about their daily lives.
    It also brings back the memory of the crocodiles that must be in those waters based on the collection of live crocodiles fighting for space in those man made pits beside the shops makeshift piers.
    I can feel the energy again of that enterprising boat hand pumbling my back, and thinking like you, how smart they are finding way to make a living, like most Cambodians we met.

    1. Hi Mal, I left out mention of the crocs because I didn’t hear what Sam had to say about them given that they were penned. I was fascinated by a small girl about 6 years old paddling an upturned bucket. I guess the people who live here treat the water as if it were a pavement or something. All I saw was people whipping about confidently like it was the most natural thing in the world. Amazing place.

  2. I had never imagined Lake Tonle Sap to be so vast, a veritable inland sea, It was such a surprise. And as you say the questions you really want answered hide in plain view until the opportunity for answers have passed. I wondered about effluent from the river dwellers, was the potential problem mitigated by the vast flow of water or was a nasty problem lurking just beneath the surface. 😃

    1. Indeed. I imagine it all gets washed away but you never know do you. Nadiya Hussain made a BBC programme recently where she cooked in a house in one of the houses on Tonle Sap. I think it was a version of fish amok. Interesting to see if you can track down a Beeb showing – Episode 1 of her Asian Odyssey. There’s a lovely moment where she is choked by seeing the buffalo on the banks. Apparently her grandfather used to send her down to water with the buffalo when she was 10 years old.

      1. Sadly, without Pay TV I’m unable to stream BBC programs, but then it may end up on our free to air ABC so I’ll keep my eye open. Seeing places you have visited on film or on TV makes them much more meaningful

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